MIAMI — As a 20-year veteran of the A320 cockpit for a major U.S. airline, including the last 15 in the Captain’s seat, I have cringed at the utter misrepresentation of aviation facts often disseminated by news outlets and their self-proclaimed “aviation experts” endlessly paraded across the TV screen during coverage of the latest air disaster. Coverage of the tragic crash of Germanwings 9525 has been no exception.
While today’s news suggests that the First Officer deliberately flew his A320 into the ground, until the CVR (cockpit voice recorder) was found and analyzed, worldwide news sources had faced a dearth of data to report on a major news story, and instead filled the gaps with both fantastic, and fantastically inaccurate, fluff.
By nature, as we all wait breathlessly for any morsel of breaking news regarding the fatal crash, our subconscious can’t help but race ahead, and fill the gaps between facts with speculation. In this hyperconnected age, this same speculative fill-in-the-blank occurs collectively, worldwide, via live, 24-hour news feeds such as CNN.
Worse, these very same reporters, who have zero experience with aviation, tend to let their own imaginations fly (excuse the pun.) Recent disasters saw such storied gems as CNN anchor Don Lemon’s “black hole theory” about MH370, promptly one-upped in absurdity by former DOT Inspector General Mary Shaivo’s reply that a “tiny black hole would swallow the entire universe.” Graphs depicting the plane du jour are a comic cavalcade of inaccuracies, such as a four-engine A320, or a double-decker Boeing 737. And let’s not forget such sage scrolling tidbits as, “Boeing 777 will struggle to maintain altitude once the fuel tanks are empty.”
At least, so far, no news source has come up with a Germanwings equivalent of Captain Sum Ting Wong and First Officer Wi Tu Lo.
Seriously, however—and with the deepest condolences and respects to the victims and families of the Germanwings 9525 tragedy—these endless speculations and haphazard reporting have become blackly comical at best, and wildly irresponsible at worst. Families and loved ones of those lost tend to hang on every word disseminated by the international media, and somewhere between Walter Williams and Brian Williams, we seem to have lost that sacred mantra of journalism: that the public journal is a public trust.
To be sure, some highly qualified individuals occasionally grace the TV screen with their pearls of wisdom—international A330 pilot Karlene Petitt, author of Flight to Success, comes to mind. But for every expert, there seems to be some Ya-hoo whose sole qualification is that he watched Airport ’77.
Covering all angles of a news story is one thing, but unhealthy obsession with a single aspect is another. For example, in the first 48 hours after the 9525 crash, news outlets were quick to question the design of the Airbus itself. Known for its high level of automation, this very same design philosophy has come under intense scrutiny. While somewhat justified in the aftermath of Air France 447, it is nevertheless human nature to fear the unknown and, like Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, suspicion often falls first on that which is least understood.
When contacted for this piece, Karlene Petitt agreed: “Having flown the A330 around the world for six years, I will stand by the plane and fly it any time. The A330 is extremely stable, and the technology brilliant. It’s only those who don’t understand the technology, that have problems. It’s not the plane. I suppose we fear what we don’t know, but the Airbus should not be one of those fears.”
Yes, mechanical things fail. Yes, an airplane with over 1 million parts and dozens of computers will need regular maintenance. During my recent Skype interview with Qantas A380 Captain Richard De Crespigny, author of QF32 and the captain aboard Flight 32 during an inflight engine explosion, Captain De Crespigny said, “If you want to fly a high-tech airplane, there is a responsibility to understand the systems. Because when those systems fail—and they do fail—it’s up to the pilot to recover.”
Indeed, the Airbus is one of the most high-tech airliners ever built. While it was specifically designed to allow a less-experienced pilot to safely operate, it is incumbent upon every pilot to understand these systems in order to overcome any possible event. But, really, this philosophy applies to any pilot and their aircraft. Regardless of aircraft type, safety always boils down to basic stick and rudder.
OK, enough venting. Let’s set the record straight on this whole Airbus thing. While the latest evidence for Germanwings 9525 points toward pilot suicide, even if this accident did prove to be a design flaw of the Airbus itself, the safety record still ranks the A320 family (A318-A321) in the top five safest airline models of all time. Odds of dying in an A320: 1 in 792 million flights.
Lifetime odds of dying in any airplane: 1 in 11 million.
Lifetime odds of dying in a car: 1 in 77.
Ironically, during an exhaustive CNN panel discussion by aviation experts, Cockpit Confidential author Patrick Smith offered that news channels should avoid obsessive over-speculation about plane crashes. In doing so, Smith says, it exacerbates the misperception of an increasing danger in the skies. Retired American Airlines pilot Jim Tilmon agreed, going further to voice his concerns about discussing—at length and on worldwide feed—security measures in place aboard the world’s airlines.
Captain Tilmon was promptly shouted down by CNN’s “resident aviation expert” Richard Quest. While Quest won AIB’s 2014 “personality of the year,” I fail to see how this qualifies him as an aviation expert. Best I can tell, his expertise in aviation stems from his possession of a very loud and obnoxious English accent, and possession of a passenger seat on the last Concorde’s flight.
I wholeheartedly agree with Smith and Tilmon’s points, especially their concern over airline security. By their very nature, these issues are best left unearthed. By discussing these issues publicly, was airline security compromised? Perhaps not, but it seems we are treading a very hazardous line for the sole purpose of filling a few measly minutes of air time.
In this very column, in an Op Ed on MH370, airline captain Mark Berry, author of 13,760 Feet, said that speculation can be a good thing. I agree, to a point. But when speculation turns to over-speculation, when fill-in-the-speculative-blank becomes its own news story, the media—intentionally or no—begins to fill the public psyche with a false sense of insecurity. Suddenly, air travel is perceived as dangerous. Conceivably, a family planning their vacation might decide to drive instead of fly—and thus increase their risk exponentially.
And that flies square in the face of public trust.